New York City is figuring out how to respond to a major climate disaster—and when to give up trying.
STATEN ISLAND, New York— The first time I walked Fox Beach Avenue on Staten Island, in October 2013, the house at number 72 was still standing. Its windows were boarded over and the surrounding yards overgrown by a tall swamp grass called phragmites, which had advanced from the saltwater marsh at the end of the street.
When I returned on a recent Friday morning, a year and a half later, it was gone. The lot was empty save for a modest memorial: two small flowered crosses stuck into the ground at the center of the plot. Empty lots outnumbered standing homes all along the street.
“That was the first house to come down,” says John Jaieceki, who lives on nearby Mill Road.
In fact, since 2012, when Hurricane Sandy brought catastrophic flooding to this neighborhood, Oakwood Beach, 99 percent of its residents have sold their homes to the state of New York. The land is to be permanently cleared, then returned to nature to become a blue-green buffer zone protecting inland communities.
Sandy was indicative of climate change’s new normal for coastal cities like New York: increasingly destructive storms and flooding, followed by weeks, months, and in some cases years of bringing a complex, densely populated metropolis back from disaster.
All told, New York state has spent more than $200 million to acquire 505 coastal homes across several neighborhoods, moving thousands of people out of the path of the next major storm. But far from encouraging a major retreat from the sea, New York City and New York state are spending hundreds of millions to repair and rebuild dozens of other equally vulnerable, equally damaged neighborhoods, such as Red Hook in Brooklyn, that are home to millions of people.
New York’s status as a global hub of finance, media, and culture—as well as its strong mayoral support for climate action—means that both moves are happening under a microscope. Coastal cities nationally and worldwide hope to learn by watching to see whether one of world’s most populated, creative, and complex cities can recover from one climate disaster while simultaneously preparing for the next.
Neighborhoods along New York City’s 620 miles of waterfront tend to embrace their disconnect from that other Gotham, the city of high-stakes finance, five-Benjamin sushi dinners, and cutting-edge fashionistas.
But now even the waterfront is becoming a tale of two cities: one where it’s become too dangerous to remain, and another deemed impossible—or perhaps too valuable—to abandon.
After the Flood, a Retreat From the Sea
For generations of working-class Staten Islanders, Oakwood Beach was a world away from the rest of New York City—even though the tip of lower Manhattan is less than 15 miles north as the fish swims, and about an hour away by car.
Walk through the marsh along a short path that begins near the “Dead End” sign on Fox Beach Avenue, and you emerge a minute later onto a quiet, sandy beach washed by the waters of New York’s Lower Bay. The hook of New Jersey sits on the southern horizon, and on a clear day you may spot Coney Island to the east.
In a beach neighborhood, stories about the past often revolve around big weather: Hurricane Gloria in 1985, the great nor’easter of 1992, 2011’s Hurricane Irene. Even the New England Hurricane of 1938 still looms in the collective memory of Staten Islanders.
But Hurricane Sandy topped them all. The New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery estimates that Sandy destroyed or damaged upwards of 300,000 homes (including apartments), the bulk of them within New York City. Also damaged were hundreds of thousands of businesses, major mass-transit tunnels and track beds, and more than 2,000 miles of roadway. Total damages for the state are estimated at $32 billion.
Of the 233 people killed by the storm during its weeklong rampage through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic Coast, 60 were in New York. Twenty-four of those were Staten Islanders.
Some of Sandy’s fearsome destructive power was credited to random bad luck—if, in the era of climate change, we can still call extreme weather random.
Sandy weakened to a tropical storm before reaching New York, but then it merged with an Arctic cold front descending from the north to form a single vast “superstorm,” covering 1,100 square miles with hurricane-strength winds and driving rain. Then the storm made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, just before high tide, which in any era would mean major flooding for the southern sections of New York City.
The final stroke, however, was a century in the making. The sea level around New York City is a foot higher than it was in 1900, making the region more vulnerable to ocean flooding than at any other time in modern history. According to a recent report from the New York Panel on Climate Change, this 12 inches of additional sea level “expanded Hurricane Sandy’s flood area by approximately 25 square miles, flooding the homes of more than 80,000 additional people in New York and New Jersey alone.”
It all added up to Sandy’s unprecedented 14-foot storm surge, which submerged most of Oakwood Beach within minutes of hitting shore. Staten Islander Joe Tirone, who with Jaieceki was showing me around Fox Beach Avenue, nodded toward the empty lot at number 88. When the flood hit, he had climbed up on the roof of the house that once stood there, he says, after coming by that evening to check on his rental property and tenants.
John Filipowitz, 50, and his son John Jr., 20, drowned in their basement at 72 Fox Beach Avenue, where the two crosses now stand. Up the street at number 176, Leonard Montalto, 53, also drowned in his basement.
Flowing along small waterways to the north and south of Oakwood Beach, the storm surge formed a pincer around Jaieceki’s house, about a quarter mile inland from Fox Beach, and those behind it. Sitting atop a four-foot rise, Jaieceki’s main floor had little damage. But the basement filled up “like a fishbowl,” he says, pointing to a five-foot watermark on the back door.
Sandy’s flood convinced Tirone that Oakwood Beach was no longer livable. But no one could afford to just walk away from their property. Investigating the options, Tirone discovered that in an upstate town called Jay, which was catastrophically flooded in 2011 by Hurricane Irene, the governor’s office was offering riverfront residents the pre-storm value of their homes to let the land go back to nature.
Tirone organized 165 Fox Beach homeowners to ask for a state buyout of their homes. The state soon extended the program to the rest of Oakwood Beach, along with a few other shorefront neighborhoods on Staten Island and Long Island.
“I went door to door talking to people about the buyout. This is not a place to build houses,” Jaieceki says. But while the rows of attached bungalows on the streets behind his home are now empty and tagged for demolition, Jaieceki’s property didn’t qualify for the program.
So he and his wife will stay in their home of 32 years, he says, until he retires from his job as a UPS delivery driver. “It’s nice living down here, it’s quiet,” he says. “I like seeing the wildlife.” Jaieceki just hopes he’ll be able to sell his home for enough money to allow them to move, and before the next major storm.
New York faces a special challenge in adapting to this new normal: It’s a “hot spot” for sea-level rise, according to Vivien Gornitz, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University.
The water level around New York is advancing at nearly twice the global rate, says Gornitz, who coauthored the chapter “Sea Level Rise and Coastal Storms” for the recent NPCC report.
Sitting together recently in her sunny office in Morningside Heights, Gornitz and I examined a graph of projected sea-level rise for the region: another four to eight inches during the 2020s, 11 to 21 inches more during the 2050s, 18 to 39 inches more in the 2080s.
“Sea level rise is projected to accelerate as the century progresses and could reach as high as 75 inches by 2100” in the worst-case scenario, according to the report. Destructive weather will also increase, with the 20th century’s once-in-a-100-year event happening at least twice, and possibly four times more frequently during the 21st.
About 40 percent of this is out of our control, Gornitz says, because the city sits on land that is slowly sinking thanks to larger geologic forces. But the other 60 percent is due to burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests—aka climate change—which is melting icebound water on land. Eventually, that water flows to the sea.
“Mountain glaciers have been receding since the mid-19th century,” says Gornitz, and the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica “maybe within the last two to three decades,” causing a third to half of total sea-level rise in the past 20 years.
Gornitz says New York is also vulnerable to the slowdown of the Gulf Stream ocean current. A recent study concluded that as the Arctic continues to melt, more freshwater flows into the North Atlantic, diluting the seawater and changing its density. This appears to be disrupting the Gulf Stream’s flow, she says, which affects sea levels along the coast.
Even if nations start to combat global warming more strongly than the past suggests is possible, these conditions will only worsen in coming decades, because there’s already a lot of excess heat stored in the ocean. That alone suggests that retreating from the sea needs to happen all along the waterfront, not just in a few neighborhoods.
But while scientists can model future conditions, they can’t predict future events. “There’s no question that climate is going to make for more frequent and intense storms, but there’s no way to know where they’re going to be,” says Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who studies how communities deal with climate change.
Residents of beach towns—and Cohen, a resident of Long Beach, a New York oceanfront suburb, counts himself among them—can be “unwilling to let them go,” he says. The communities are often unique, and “in many cases homes have been renovated and handed down generation to generation,” he says. “Most people, if they can afford it, want to stay. Most people are working very hard to stay.”
Prosperity has increased our vulnerability, Cohen says, rather than making us more resilient. “In the 1938 flood, water went into the house and came out of the house, because it was all made of wood. There was very little electricity, no cable TV, no Internet,” he says. “What most Americans consider to be a repaired home is very different in 2015 from what that would have been 70, 80, or 90 years ago.”
Rebuilding: Better, Stronger, but Not Fast
Across the water sits Red Hook, a gritty Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood of just under a square mile. Here residents of the Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing complex in the city, live alongside affluent young professionals attracted to the neighborhood’s century-old brick row houses and modern condo buildings.
Sandy didn’t discriminate: The storm surge devastated heating and electrical systems, phone service, and other infrastructure throughout Red Hook.
But relinquishing the neighborhood back to the sea is the last thing on the mind of architect Gita Nandan, an assistant professor in the planning school at Pratt Institute who has lived here for nine years. Nandan is co-chair of the Red Hook committee for NY Rising, a grassroots program to reconstruct and improve storm-damaged neighborhoods.
As we walked around the neighborhood on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I asked Nandan whether anyone had considered Oakwood Beach–style buyouts for Red Hook. No one, she says. Red Hook is “too urban, part of the deep New York City urban fabric” to be given back to the sea, she says. “This is very different from Staten Island.”
Nandan’s perspective mirrors that of most city officials. In Sandy’s wake the mayor’s office launched two programs meant to help people stay in their homes: Rapid Repair to handle restoration of basic amenities like weatherproofing, water, and electricity, followed by Build It Back, for long-term restoration of homes to their pre-storm value.
After Sandy, Red Hook’s controversial Ikea store became a community hub where residents were able to get meals, charge their cell phones, and access emergency information and services. That’s because the Swedish retail giant, which opened here in 2008, planned for flooding by building its parking lot at ground level and retail floors above it. In 2011, the store flipped the switch on a 240,000 kilowatt-hour solar energy array.
Despite the post-Sandy rush of enthusiasm for rebuilding Red Hook, it’s likely that “there won’t be any services in Red Hook for at least 72 hours after an event,” Nandan says. So learning from the Ikea experience, she and the NY Rising Red Hook committee have turned to one of today’s hottest energy trends. They’re proposing to distribute a microgrid—a series of stand-alone renewable and backup energy resources—at key community locations such as the fire department, a church, and a family health center.
This microgrid would kick into “island mode” during and after the next big catastrophe to power cell phones, emergency communications, refrigeration, lights, and more, and to keep the heat or cooling going (depending on the season) until electrical systems are repaired.
Between storms and floods, the microgrid could support neighborhood amenities such as extra street lights, an electric bicycle share, “maybe even a bus from Red Hook to lower Manhattan through the Battery Tunnel,” Nandan says.
To fund the plan, the committee has entered the microgrid proposal into NY Prize, a statewide clean energy competition. Separately, the city’s public housing authority is assessing a similar system for the Red Hook Houses, which lacked heat and hot water for several weeks after Sandy. Decisions on both projects are expected in May.
Even if they go forward, however, it will be years before they’re completed, unlike the state’s speedy buyouts of the Staten Island neighborhoods. The same is true for rebuilding and flood protection projects citywide.
Cities like New York have become good at emergency response after disasters, says Cohen. “New Orleans lost many, many lives [after Katrina], and this region lost less than 100,” he says. “That’s small comfort for the people who are dead, but it showed that we knew how to get people out of harm’s way.”
The next step, he says, is to get better at rebuilding.
Too many New Yorkers have endured years of stress and trauma trying to rebuild their homes, Cohen says, due to the failures of the city’s Build It Back program. In September The New York Times reported that Build It Back sat on hundreds of millions of federal recovery dollars for over two years because officials were fixated on avoiding the kinds of fiscal mismanagement that plagued post-Katrina rebuilding programs.
Every one of Build It Back’s 20,000 applicants encountered “hopeless bottlenecks” as they attempted to navigate the process, the Times reported.
The city claimed in March that these and other problems had been corrected.
“If you’re going to spend the money, spend it quickly,” Cohen says. “I think in the information age we can figure out a way to do this.”
If another Sandy-like storm hits New York in the next five years, he believes that there will be broader consideration of pulling back from the water’s edge. But “this is a coastal city,” he noted, “and there are billions if not trillions of infrastructure dollars invested in the city as it currently exists.” The question is one of redesign, he says, not retreat.
Nandan agrees. “I think Red Hook is an appropriate place for trying out innovative types of things” to live with the ocean instead of fighting it, she says. “The sense of community here is really strong compared to other neighborhoods I’ve lived in in New York City.”
But Tirone, who remains as attached to Oakwood Beach as Nandan is to Red Hook, thinks it won’t be too many years before more neighborhoods will have to reconsider retreating from the waterfront.
“Several homes here were rebuilt after the ’92 storm to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s] revised standards, and they still got wiped out by Sandy. That’s proof that something is happening, whether that’s climate change or whatever,” Tirone says. “I think there’s a certain amount that you have to cede back to nature.”